Neoclassicism: Le Cid by Pierre Corneille
Le Cid: the characters and key plot-points
DON FERNANDO: first King of Castile (Spain)
DONA URRACA (LA INFANTA): Princess of Castile, in love with Don Rodrigo
DON DIEGO: Don Rodrigo's father, an elderly man
DON GOMEZ: Count of Gormas, Ximena's father and best warrior of King of Castile, Don Fernando
DON RODRIGO: Ximena's beloved/fiancee
DON SANCHO: Man in love with Ximena
DON ARIAS/DON ALONSO: Noblemen of Castile
XIMENA (sometimes CHIMENA in other translations): Don Gomez's daughter and beloved of Rodrigo
LEONORA: La Infanta's governess
ELVIRA: Ximena's governess
PAGE: page to La Infanta
La Infanta is in love with Don Rodrigo, Ximena's soon-to-be husband, but knows they cannot marry because of their
different social statuses. Don Gomez, who expected to be the Prince's (not in play) tutor is insulted because Don
Diego was chosen. So, naturally, Gomez slaps Don Diego across the face! The King orders the Count to apologize
to Don Diego. He refuses. Don Rodrigo, to maintain his aged father's honor, kills the Count, despite the fact that the
Count is the father of his beloved. Honor/Vengeance is more important than love/marriage. Don Diego and
Ximena appear before the King to plead for and against Rodrigo's life, respectively. Don Rodrigo offers his head to
Ximena, she refuses and sort of kind of admits her love for Rodrigo. Don Diego urges his son to lead a band of men
against the Moors who are AGAIN attacking Spain (this way, Rodrigo can end his suffering in love for Ximena
through death-- an HONORABLE death in battle against the Moors! Everyone wins... right?)
Rodrigo, against all odds, defeats the Moors (read: African Muslims) in an epic battle that the audience never sees.
He tells the King about his victory-- which as caused the Moors to call him “El Cid” meaning “The Lord”-- and the
King is really happy because it sounds like the Moors are gone for good this time! So, he tricks Ximena and tells her
that Rodrigo died in battle- she faints because she totally loves him so bad. Then the King says, “Just kidding! He's
alive! YAY!” She says, “Oh, kill him. He killed my dad.” The King says, “No! He rules! He killed all those Moors.
Instead, pick another dude who will fight Rodrigo. Whichever one wins, marries you.” She chooses Don Sancho
who totally loves HER so bad.
Rodrigo says goodbye to Ximena because he has decided to die during the duel with Sancho. Ximena says, “No!
Live! I love you!” They fight (audience again is not witness to this epic duel) and Don Sancho comes to tell Ximena
the outcome. She assumes Rodrigo is dead and is REALLY upset. She's wrong. Rodrigo won but spared his
opponent's life. The King asks Ximena to pardon Rodrigo and gives her a year before she has to marry him (part of
the terms of the duel). Bittersweet ending for Ximena but she has a year to get over the death of her father and
realize she has scored a manly, honorable Moor-killer!
The Author, Pierre Corneille: A Brief Biography/Theatrical Resume
June 6, 1606 (Rouen, France) – October 1, 1684 (Paris, France)
Received a Jesuit education and began law school at age 18. At 23, his father (an administrative official in the
French government) helped him secure a government position in waterways in forestry. During this career, Corneille
began writing plays. He wrote 20 during his career with the government and 12 after retiring. His first play, Melite,
was a comedy that played successfully in Paris. This, and other early Corneille comedies, broke from traditional
French farces by elevating the language and manners of Parisian society. In 1634, at the age of just 28, Corneille
was asked to join the Company of Five Authors at the French Academy by Cardinal Richelieu, advancing
Corneille's playwriting career. He felt restricted by the rules and regulations of the Academy so left shortly before
writing and producing his famous tragicomedy Le Cid. Cardinal Richelieu criticized the play for not conforming to
the “unities”, and the French Academy officially condemned it as “dramatically implausible and morally
defective”. Corneille wrote three more tragedies next (Horace, Cinna and Polyeucte) which, along with Le Cid, are
known as his “Classical Tetralogy”. He re-joined the French Academy in 1647 and his plays soon were
overshadowed by those of Moliere and Racine. He is still known today, however, as the “Founder of French
Other Works by Pierre Corneille:
Clitandre (1630–31); la Veuve (1631); la Galerie du Palais (1631–32); la Place royale (1633–34);
l'Illusion comique (1636); Médée (1635); la Mort de Pompée (1643); Le Menteur (1643);
Rodogune (1644); Héraclius (1647); Don Sanche d'Aragon (1650); Andromède, (1650);
Nicomède, (1651); Pertharite, (1651); l'Imitation de Jésus-Christ (1656); Oedipe (1659); Trois
Discours sur le poème dramatique (1660); La Toison d'or (1660); Sertorius (1662); Othon (1664);
Agésilas (1666); Attila (1667); Tite et Bérénice (1670); Psyché (with Molière and Philippe
Quinault,1671); Suréna (1674)
Key Definitions for French Neoclassical Theatre
Neoclassicism: The neoclassical era followed the Renaissance, a time when humanity was thought to have
limitless potential. Neoclassicism opposed this view, seeing humankind as limited, dualistic and imperfect. As
a result, a reverence for order and a delight in reason and rules reigned supreme.
The Unities (“three unities”): rules for drama derived from one interpretation of Aristotle’s Poetics. In their
neoclassical form, they are:
The Unity of Action: a play should have one main action that it follows with no or few subplots.
The Unity of Place: a play should cover a single physical space and should not attempt to
compress geography, nor should the stage represent more than one place.
The Unity of Time: the action in a play should take place over no more than 24 hours.
Baroque: a style of art begun in Rome around 1600, encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church. This style
infused paintings, sculpture, theater, architecture, music, literature and dance. To put it simply, baroque art left
the audience with a sense of awe due to its elaborate yet patterned composure (examples: Bach, Vivaldi, John
Milton’s Paradise Lost, Bernini, Melk Abbey in Austria). This style largely differed from that of
neoclassicism but was happening around the same time period.
The French Academy (Le Academie Francais): Founded in 1636 by Cardinal Richelieu, this institution
established rules of French grammar/prose and set standards for French art such as ballet, Baroque opera and
music, painting and Neoclassical theater.
“Company of Five Authors” (Les Cinq Auteurs): Group of authors who established early rules of the
Academie. Included Corneille and Guillaume Colletet, Boisrobert, Jean Rotrou and Claude de Lestoile.
Cardinal Richelieu: Founder of the Academie Francais and chief minister to King Louis XIII. Early on in
Corneille’s career, Richelieu commissioned his plays.
Tragicomedy: the fusion of tragedy and comedy in a dramatic work. Pierre Corneille was one of the first to
write this kind of play in France (Le Cid) and enjoyed large audiences and harsh criticism because of it.
Deus ex Machina: The classic dramatic device in Ancient Greek theater when the Gods would literally be
brought to the stage to solve conflict via a “machine”. Became popular again in Moliere and Racine’s
neoclassical plays more figuratively. For example, the deus ex machina of several of Moliere’s plays came in
the form of a letter from the King smoothing out miscommunications, thus ending the conflict of the play.
Polyeucte: Often hailed as Corneille's greatest play, the fourth tragedy in his “classical tetralogy” is about a
born-again Christian who discovers his wife is in love with another man.
The Three Discourses on Dramatic Poetry (Trois Discours sur le poème dramatique): Corneille’s
1660 response to criticism of Le Cid. In this publication, he maintained the importance of classical dramatic
rules and justified his own breaking of those rules in Le Cid. He argued that Aristotle’s dramatic guidelines
were not meant to be interpreted literally and should, instead, be open to various kinds of interpretation.
Corneille thought that dramatic rules should not be so tyrannical that they discourage innovation.